This guest post is by Ed Murray, Democratic leader of the Washington State Senate.
Many of us will never forget the heartbreaking day on December 14 when indescribable violence tore through Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut and destroyed the lives of 20 beautiful, innocent young children.
The youth of the six- and seven-year-old victims shocked us all and caused us to wonder how such an incomprehensible thing is even possible.
Yet even as a tremendous grief settled over the country, many have taken heart—however heavy those hearts are—that perhaps we have reached a turning point. Perhaps the country has awakened to a threat to our communities that can no longer be tolerated. Perhaps the horror of Sandy Hook was horrible enough to prompt, finally, some kind of substantive response to gun violence.
Here in Seattle—where we recently experienced a mass shooting in our backyard at Café Racer—the hope that we are on the brink of reform is strong. But nearly as strong is the anger and frustration being directed at our elected officials who have long supported gun control but have failed for years to pass any meaningful protections into law.
I understand the frustration, the anger that many feel about the lack of progress on an issue that continues to cost innocent lives. I feel it myself. But simply attacking our elected representatives who share the goal of reforming our gun laws—while understandable—is not a winning strategy. It will not help attract the undecided, it will not change the minds of those who currently oppose gun control, and it will not move us forward.
To win, we need a base of support as broad as it is strong. As I have said before during the fight for marriage equality, building coalitions is about building partnerships with people and organizations that are different then just our traditional progressive allies. If I have learned anything from my nearly two decades in elected office, it’s that recognizing a problem is the easy part. Articulating a solution can be more difficult. But the hardest task in legislative politics is the sustained dialogue with those in the community who do not already agree with you.
This dialogue has not happened, and it needs to. By necessity, it will be an ongoing dialogue that will take time, patience, and a willingness to listen.
I know very well that, for a number of gun control supporters, this will not be a welcomed message to hear. I remember, years ago, the painful meetings with parents whose children had committed suicide as a result of bullying because of their perceived sexual orientation. The last thing they wanted to hear from me was that the legislation they wanted to spare other families their suffering, was not going to happen yet, and it was going to take time. During the 17 years over the legislative battle for marriage equality, I watched supporters become demoralized—and even heartbroken—as they realized illness and time would mean they would never marry the person they love.
I mention these experiences not because they are equivalent to the tragedy in Connecticut. I mention them because the reaction to the reality of finding is a political solution to those who wanted change to come quickly is similar—and because I think there are some hard-earned lessons along the way that will be helpful.
Who would have thought just 15 years ago, or 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago that we would be celebrating the passage of marriage equality in 2012? For many in the gay community, marriage seemed all but it impossible—or at least too impossibly far into the future to ever be able to celebrate. Personally, I have never felt more lost and alone in the political wilderness than I did as the only openly gay legislator in 1998, standing on the steps of the Temple of Justice when the state Supreme Court overwhelmingly upheld the Defense of Marriage Act, which had been passed overwhelmingly by the legislature only months earlier. At the time, the road to marriage equality seemed completely blocked.
But by the time marriage equality was finally approved this past November after many years of public dialogue and laying the groundwork for a broad-based coalition, our supporters included a number of community groups that had previously opposed our efforts, including the major members of the business community, the faith community—and a number of prominent Republicans. We brought them along not by making righteous moral demands, but by helping companies both small and large see how inequality presented a barrier to their business, and by helping churches see how inequality inhibited their parishioners’ full expression of their faith.
Similarly, supporters of gun control must engage in a conversation in our community on terms that extend beyond the moral vocabulary of traditional progressives. We must meet our conversation partners at their vantage point and on the terms they use to describe what they see from there, rather than demand that they must come to our vantage and adopt our terms.
There are many groups in our community that have a real stake in any discussion about steps we might consider in the effort to reduce gun violence. As we engage them in conversation, it will appear on the outside as though progress isn’t being made. But progress will depend on the input and involvement of educators, parent associations, health care providers, law enforcement officials from both urban and rural jurisdictions, prosecutors, churches, the business community, civic groups, and elected officials at the city, county and state level.
The terms of these discussions will vary, but each of these groups has in common a concern for our community and a commitment to improving our shared quality of life. That might be a good place for the conversation to begin.
It will take time, but we can make progress on restricting access to guns and controlling gun violence.
|What is not effective||What will work|
|Releasing an agenda, holding a press conference or dropping a bill and expecting the world to come around to our point of view||Reaching out across our community and engage in constructive, ongoing two-way dialogue|
|Drawing a line in the sand or driving a wedge between us and those in the community who do not yet share our point of view||Having a discussion that focuses on what we have in common, not what sets us apart|
|Denigrating gun ownership||Bringing in gun owners who are supportive of common sense reforms; allowing gun owners to identify with our coalition rather than feel antagonized by it|
|Putting forward a laundry list of gun control proposals||Coalescing around a focused set of reforms, such as banning assault rifles, banning high-capacity magazine clips, and closing loopholes in our background check laws|
|Demanding action now and growing frustrated when it does not happen immediately||Being patient and committed over the long term to the process of forming, cultivating, and growing a coalition|